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Keith Reddin: who can you trust?

Keith Reddin's plays are an analytical critic's dream, seeming to divide with perfect clarity into two categories: geo-political and urban angst. Rum and Coke, Highest Standard of Living, Nebraska, Black Snow and Displaced Persons deal quite specifically with politics, government agencies, and national or international affairs. By contrast, Life and Limb, Big Time, Life During Wartime, Innocents Crusade and Brutality of Fact have urban or suburban settings, a more intimate or domestic focus, and take on such institutions as family, school, religion and business.

All these plays, in fact, share a nihilistic suspicion of all institutions. Reddin believes that institutions by nature are self-justifying, opportunistic and intolerant of dissent--that the organizational custodians of our ideals and ethics will always fail us, if not actually betray us. Not suprisingly, Reddin' resume reveals that his undergraduate years, when his world view and writing skills were both developing, spanned the end of the Vietnam war and Watergate. Add to that a disastrous student visit to the Soviet Union (the inspiration for Highest Standard of Living), and one gets an idea of the wellsprings of his mistrust.

Hesitant heros

Nonetheless, against the monumental rock of social and political establishments Reddin always sets a lone hero who, Sisyphus-like, pushes against the impersonal, the illogical, the amoral, the crushing absurdity of bureaucracy. "If you don't face those institutions, if you don't fight them, you don't have right to say, 'Well, the nation's going down the tubes,"' Reddin suggests. Thus the characteristic tension in his plays is between an isolated figure who wants to make the world run better, and a gaggle of others who only want to make the world run, usually for their own benefit.

Reddin's frustrated idealists include the confused young conservative of Rum an Coke who attempts to stop the Bay of Pigs juggernaut when he perceives that it cannot succeed; the student in Highest Standard of Living who sees the KGB and the FBI merge into absolute sameness; the vague college boy of Innocents Crusad who challenges his father's conformist values and the opacity of college admissions practices; the struggling author of Black Snow (adapted from the Bulgakov novel) who butts heads with the Stalinist literary apparatus.

Reddin's heroes always are hesitant, even reluctant, for he doesn't offer them easy choices. Their antagonists are usually nasty but seductive powerbrokers wh offer security, success, wealth, power and fame if the hero will get with the program and not ask questions. Ultimate pragmatists, Reddin's bad guys offer absolution when things go wrong and people suffer. "It's not your fault," they reassure. "That's the way the world is."

But the Reddin hero is not a pragmatist. He or she shoulders personal responsibility in an inchoate search for an ethical or moral center absent in our institutions. It is, in fact, a spiritual quest, and it is the great counterbalance to the playwright's flirtations with nihilism and paranoia. Often, the spiritual quest is represented by the supernatural: Reddin's plays are filled with ghosts, hallucinations, visions and spirit journeys. The heroes of Highest Standard of living and Black Snow hallucinate; religionist John Calvin materializes to do a running stand-up routine in the otherwise suburbia-bound Life During Wartime; characters in Life and Limb die, go to Hell and return; the three central women in Brutality of Fact each have a dream/ghos visitation from a deceased female relative.

Such highly theatrical devices break up the linearity of the plays, but Reddin feels they reveal a theatrical and spiritual kinship his work shares with the pageants and mystery plays of the late medieval world. While not religiously observant himself, the playwright says, "There is a spiritual level to my work--people go to heaven and hell, or they think of going to heaven and hell. Religion is very important to a majority of people in America. There's always someone saying, 'How do I live my life in this world that is full of chaos and anarchy? How can I be a good person?'"

Most Reddin plays are technically challenging to produce, with a pattern of numerous scenes in multiple locations, creating a cinematic energy that sets hi dark and paranoid world view in sharp relief. "They're very difficult from a design standpoint," observes Michael Maggio, associate artistic director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, who has staged four Reddin plays. (The playwright himself admits that one designer reacted to a new script with, "Oh, another screenplay.")

Flair and craftsmanship are not unexpected in a playwright who studied at Yale School of Drama with John Guare and Arthur Kopit, after an undergraduate acting major (augmented by a minor in Russian literature and studies with director and Russian expert Frank Galati) at Northwestern University. The uses of irony, controlled exaggeration and despair which characterize the great satires of Gogol and Bulgakov also imbue the best of Reddin's work, giving them a sharp edge that appeals to directors and actors.

"I leave it up to the actors," he says of the specifics of stage action (his published plays are nearly devoid of stage directions). "I don't think in terms of action. I think of telling the story."

Blood on the typewriter

The range of the New York-based, 38-year-old author and actor's dramaturgy was on display last spring with the simultaneous premieres of Brutality of Fact, directed by Maggio at the Goodman, and Displaced Persons, which debuted at the Workhouse Theatre in New York after development at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The former is an urban angst drama that is Reddin's clearest statement yet of the spiritual quest: It follows the ascending and descending arcs of the lives of two sisters, one a recovering alcoholic, estranged from her family, the othe a dupe of religious cultism following a broken marriage. "Do we aim to save ourselves for the afterlife," Reddin wonders, capsulizing the play's existentia conundrum, "or do we try to salvage things in this life?"

Displaced Persons, by contrast, falls squarely in the geo-political column of the Reddin canon: In occupied Germany in 1946, two ambitious young officers mus determine who receives approval to emigrate to the U.S., and who will be "repatriated" to the Soviet sector, where many will face persecution and death. The officers quickly learn that a Nazi record is no barrier to emigration.

As these brief descriptions suggest, the comic elements that leaven Reddin's early plays are not so evident these days. "I think there's more blood left on the typewriter," comments collaborator Maggio. "In the last three or four years there's more pain, fewer jokes."

Reddin puts it this way: "Global politics are very messy. I get frustrated when I see plays that say we live in a completely amoral world. I have a distrust of all institutions, but I have tremendous faith in individuals."

Jonathan Abarbanel is a theatre writer based in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:playwright
Author:Abarbanel, Jonathan
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:1134
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